The Heart of Virtue

The purpose here is to allow the moral value of each virtue to have a more immediate appeal. Since virtues reside primarily in personal actions, rather than in the mind, these stories better represent the heart of virtue.

It is not possible to improve either our personal lives or our society apart from acquiring virtue.

We are reluctant to do this, however, because we believe that our sole moral responsibility is to eliminate vice, which we think we can accomplish with a minimum of effort. Yet we lull ourselves into a dangerous moral complacency when we assume that vice is no more formidable a foe than a draft of cold air that we can keep out by slamming the door in its face. It is equally perilous to maintain that slogans are sufficiently powerful to keep the devil at bay. Just saying no to drugs, racism, prejudice, and all forms of sexual aggression does not transform them into gentle lambs that will obediently go away even if our no does mean no. Vices therefore invade and inhabit our lives. And while we fail to discern their lingering presence, we do remain outraged by crime. Yet crime is nothing less than the unseemly dividend that vice had always promised.

Saying no to vice and voicing indignation at crime logically presupposes the presence in us of positive and protecting virtues. But we often take these virtues for granted even when we have done nothing to understand, acquire, or develop them. Trying to become virtuous merely by excluding vice, however, is as unrealistic as trying to cultivate roses solely by eliminating weeds. After clearing the garden of weeds, one must still plant seeds or cuttings and nurture their growth; otherwise, the weeds simply return. The best way to exclude vices is to crowd them out with the presence of strong virtue. If we oppose crime, we must oppose vice, and if we oppose vice, we must promote virtue. Clifton Fadiman’s maxim is worth repeating: The formula for Utopia on earth remains always the same: to make a necessity of virtue.

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Where strong virtues are lacking, the vices that rush in to fill the void often assume the mask of virtue. Dorothy Sayers has her own list of such counterfeit virtues, which she calls the Seven Deadly Virtues:. They are: Respectability, Childishness, Mental Timidity, Dullness, Sentimentality, Censoriousness, and Depression of Spirits.[1] Sayers is mindful of how easy it has been for human beings throughout the ages to pervert the seven foundational virtues into seven hapless imitations. The seven virtues that are the cornerstone of the moral life consist of three theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Love along with the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. The first three, sometimes called supernatural virtues, are infused at baptism and correspond to the life of grace; while the cardinal virtues, although not entirely removed from sources of grace, are their more naturalistic counterparts. The theological virtues give us a focus that transcends us without excluding us. In this way they are the perfect antidotes to self-centeredness and its consequent vice, pride. The cardinal virtues, sometimes called the Human Virtues, give us a focus within ourselves that does not exclude others a self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving. The Seven Deadly Imitations that more closely parallel these seven virtues as their sinister opposites are, respectively, Credulity, Expectation, Sentimentality, Cleverness, Legalism, Recklessness, and Tepidity. These mockeries of virtue closely resemble the Seven Deadly Sins Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth which are wholly destructive of personality.

We are not born virtuous. Nature does not steep us in good habits. Nor does moral development take place by means of cultural osmosis. Virtues must be pursued.

Ye were not formed to live the life of brutes, But virtue to pursue and knowledge high.[2]

It is precisely the vigorous pursuit, acquisition, and cultivation of virtues that enable us to conquer vice. Falling into vice is as easy as falling off a ladder. To acquire virtue, however, is more arduous. The life of sin is a fall from coherence to chaos, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the life of virtue a climb from the many to the One.[3]

The notion of virtue as a slow, methodical ascent also appears in the writings of Saint Augustine. In a celebrated passage, he says, We make a ladder out of our vices if we trample the vices under foot.[4] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poetic tribute to this Augustinian phrase that includes the following stanza:

We have not wings, we cannot soar; But we have feet to scale and climb By slow degrees, by more and more, The cloudy summits of our time.[5]

Virtue and vice are adversaries. Indeed, they are locked in mortal combat with each other. No virtue is complete that has not been victorious in its struggle with its corresponding vice. The virtuous person advances by crushing vices under his feet. It is in this context that we begin to appreciate the positive and even heroic quality that virtue possesses. Far from being merely good manners or social affectations, virtue is really the perfection of the human person on the highest level of his being his moral worth, which is to say, his humanity.

Love is not simply one virtue among others, but the form of all virtues. Each virtue finds its essential humanity and its nobility in the love that animates it. Conversely, love would be impotent if it were not for the various virtues that withstand attendant difficulties and deliver their message of love where love is needed. Love is deed; virtue is the conduit that delivers love. Just as fire hoses are needed to convey and direct water from its source to where the fire rages, virtue is needed to establish a connective between the source of love and the place where love is needed. No person, no matter how loving he claims to be, can be of any help to himself or anyone else on a moral level if he does not possess virtue. A soldier without courage, a doctor without care, a teacher without patience, a parent without prudence, a spouse without fidelity, a priest without faith, a leader without determination, a magistrate without integrity, and a friend without loyalty are all partners to futility, not because they lack love, but because they lack the virtue to express it.

Twenty-eight virtues have been selected to describe twenty-eight different ways love can be expressed. According to ancient mathematicians, twenty-eight is a perfect number because it is the sum of its divisors (1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14). Among two-digit numbers, only twenty-eight is perfect. Thus it is an appropriate number to use in describing powers that are perfective of men.

Each virtue is presented in the context of stories taken from life or from literature. The purpose here is to allow the moral value of each virtue to have a more immediate appeal. Since virtues reside primarily in personal actions, rather than in the mind, these stories better represent the heart of virtue. At the same time, it is important to understand the distinctive nature of each virtue and how the virtues relate to each other to form an organic or symphonic whole. Therefore, each chapter has a philosophical commentary that helps to sharpen and refine the identity and complementarity of the twenty-eight virtues presented. Thus virtue is presented to the reader in an immediate and intuitive manner, as well as in one that is discursive and intellectual.

The virtuous person is a person of character, a whole person, a fully realized person. Virtue, as Plato has taught, is the health, strength, and excellence of a soul in communion with reality. It is virtue more than anything else that fills a person with a sense of himself, his vitality, his purpose, and his happiness.

By Donald DeMarco


  1. Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (London: Methuen, 1947), p. 23.
  2. Dante Alighieri, Inferno, The Divine Comedy, trans. by Henry F. Cary, canto 26, pp. 116-17.
  3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, 73, I.
  4. Augustine, Sermon no. 176, On the Ascension of the Lord, in J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologiae Latinae (1845), vol. 38:949 De vitiis nostris scalam nobis facimus, si vitia ipsa calcamus.
  5. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Ladder of Saint Augustine, in Favorite Poems: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1947), p. 304.


This article is borrowed from

DeMarco, Donald. Prologue. In The Heart of Virtue, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 13-17.

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